Updated: Nov 3, 2021
What is a Gemba Walk?
Gemba means Real Place. Conducting a Gemba walk is about going to the actual place in an organisation where we create value for customers and learning. Where does your organisation create value for your customer? Often, we create value at the front line: on a factory floor or a sales call with a customer.
The power of a Gemba walk is indisputable.
A leader can gain learning and insight at the critical place, the frontline, for their organisation. The leader can use this learning to help the team progress, overcome challenges, and improve customer service.
Gemba bypasses the communication dissemination and variance from front line team members through middle management to a senior leader. Seeing is believing. There is nothing more powerful than a leader going, seeing and learning with their own eyes. Going to Gemba is a holistic approach to help an organisation move forward towards excellence.
This article will discuss:
Purpose - what's the goal for the walk?
Learn - through what you see and hear and ask for feedback.
Evaluate through experimentation.
Leading the change.
First of all, you have to decide why are you going for a walk? What is the purpose of doing a walk? And it would help if you wrote this down. You can't just think it because if you only think it, you're going to change it as time goes by, and you're never going to go back and hold yourself accountable for the original purpose.
Let's think about the purpose of a walk for a first-line supervisor with minor responsibilities. Well, firstly, they're probably doing a couple of walks a day and certainly doing several walks during the week. One walk may be to see what's happening with standard work practices. Are people following standard work? Do they have any ideas about changing the way leadership is organising standard work? Is anybody struggling with doing the job the way that it should be done? A second walk may be to look at flow - where products or processes are slowing down and what is happening on the frontline.
It's also important not to try and look for six different things on the Gemba walk. Write down a purpose and get a true feeling for what is related to your goal.
Perhaps the ultimate purpose of a Gemba walk should be to get in touch with reality as it exists. And what I want to be doing as a leader is letting go of my opinions. But more than that, I want to challenge my assumptions and beliefs because that's where knowledge evolves. When you can go in there, you can see what you thought was true isn't true. That should then make it easier for you to pause and to reflect, to see what it is that's truly happening and try to learn from that.
Listen for the rhythm, the pulse of the working environment. It doesn't matter if it's highly repetitive in a factory or if you are listening in an administrative domain. There is a pulse with the way that work gets done. Can you see the flow of the way that work is being done? One of the noticeable things in a highly effective, improving company is noise reduction. Also, that many problems are raised because standardised processes have allowed them to be seen.
Next, give people an opportunity to provide feedback. This goes for people on the frontline as well as the people who accompany you on the walk. If you want to uplift your people, you've got to give them room to learn and figure things out for themselves. Don't try and speed up the conversation through interruption. Ask good questions, and then give space for the worker to respond. Have the confidence in yourself to step back and allow somebody else to express themselves. If they're unable to ask your question, that's not because they're stupid. It's because you didn't ask a good question. And so, how can you do a better job of making it easy for people to speak?
You could also ask for feedback on your own behaviour. Ask a couple of the people on the walk with you to observe your practice. Say you wanted to get better at asking the right questions. Ask for their feedback during the debrief after the walk has finished. Asking good questions also leads to building patience.
There is a high degree of humility in top-performing organisations when leaders have started to learn things that they didn't know were going on before. They thought those practices were true upon the creation of the job but are probably not true today.
Evaluate through experimentation
Leaders can fall into a trap when they come up with a way they do the Gemba walks, and then they just try to do them that same way every time. Rather than realising this walk is an experiment, and I want to learn from it. And I want to get better and better at Gemba overtime to do a better job of uplifting the people around me, which should be the purpose of just about every Gemba walk.
Let's go back to the front line supervisor and think about how they could experiment with the Gemba process. They're usually time-pressured and doing the walks by themselves. So what can they do if they want to improve what they're doing on the walk? They could invite another supervisor to walk with them to observe their walk. They could invite their manager to attend to see what they're doing and coach them on how they could improve. The supervisor could ask for this type of review in a spirit of experimentation which would help them improve. Ideally, the supervisor asks for the review at least once, but ideally twice a year.
Change things up, because as we all know, habits can become automatic, and if we're not careful, stale. Another experimentation idea is to ask the following questions for feedback from your team:
What should I keep doing?
What should I stop doing?
What could I start doing?
A form of debriefing could be to ask the following questions:
What did we learn?
What do we want to do on the next walk?
Do we want to make some changes to the process of what is going on?
Experimentation could also be about changing the focus of the walk. Think about the range of areas in your organisation. Could you look at
assessment of practices
For management and executive, get out and observe the people doing their walks in the business and think about best practice: is it happening? Is there anyone demonstrating best practice, and if so, how could you encourage best practice so that more of us can do walks in the best way possible?
And then the executive should be asking themselves the same sort of questions. What should we keep doing? What should we stop doing? What should we start doing as time goes by to continue to keep these things fresh, to continue to keep these things relevant?
In an effective organisation, skilled at continuous improvement, the leader may ask, What are you struggling with right now to get better at doing to move forward?
With an organisation earlier in its journey, people may not know what they should focus on. As a leader, you will want to know what it is your people are focusing on. And then, you will want to see what is happening in practice. And then match up what you see with what the team has said. And then try to nudge people forward.
Leading the change
Does the CEO need to drive the improvement effort? Picture this shining light that's up there, right at the top of an organisation. And we all bask in the glow of this brilliant CEO because she's doing such a great job. Can the team draw on that brilliance and help spread the word and learn from each other?
Improving culture can happen on multiple levels. When middle and frontline leaders are on their Gemba walks, they can directly influence culture by asking good questions and respecting people.
As you build the workers' self-esteem and confidence, that doesn't mean they're going to get everything right. There's going to be mistakes along the way. But what happens when those mistakes do take place? As you go to Gemba, what are you building into the accountabilities and process improvement?
Try to hold yourself to a pretty high standard. If you're doing a walk, be accountable for seeing something that's meaningful. Make observations and ask questions. If you've done a walk and haven't seen anything substantive, then you haven't done a good walk because there's always something to see and learn from.
So, a Gemba walk is about going to the actual place in an organisation where we create value for customers and learning. Where does your organisation create value for your customer? Often, we create value at the front line: on a factory floor or a sales call with a customer. How you plan the walk, and learn from people on the floor is paramount, as is your ability to lead the change.
We think that going to Gemba is one of the best tools in the world for actively changing an organisation's culture.
Call Brad. 0402 448 445.
Get Michael Bremer's book here - Amazon
Listen to Michael Bremer's podcast episode 55.
Join our membership page to access the Gemba Walk template that Michael has kindly provided.